(Photo: Dan Delzell)
A recent article by The Associated Press states that Pope Francis is not making the liturgical "traditionalists" in the Catholic Church very happy. Apparently "the last straw" was his "decision to disregard church law and wash the feet of two girls – a Serbian Muslim and an Italian Catholic – during a Holy Thursday ritual."
The article goes on to state that "virtually everything he has done since being elected pope, every gesture, every decision, has rankled traditionalists in one way or another." I guess when you elect a pope who rode the bus to work as an archbishop, you better be prepared for a guy who thinks outside the box.
And what's wrong with thinking outside the box? Jesus often did it. The Pharisees hated Him for it. Jesus loved the poor. The Pharisees loved their traditions. Jesus gave His life for the world. The Pharisees were obsessed with perpetuating their church laws and customs. Perhaps the liturgical traditionalists in the Catholic church would be wise to follow the example of Pope Francis.
Millions of Christians in our world have worship services which are sometimes referred to as "low church." In other words, there is very little pomp and circumstance. There are no elaborate liturgical elements to the service, or fancy vestments worn by the preacher. It is pretty simple, and yet often extremely uplifting and sincere. There are many Christians in the world who are blessed by more of a "high church" experience. That is their right, and their freedom in the Gospel. They are free to utilize traditional liturgical worship, just so long as they don't worship the liturgy rather than the One who is to be at the center of our worship.
Pope Francis seems very down to earth. A man of the people. A lover of the poor. And a heart that appears far more interested in helping people than in promoting liturgical perfection. Nothing against liturgy, but come on. It's just liturgy. It's not people. It's not God. It's just a style, and a tradition, and an approach. OK, a respectable approach when done in the right spirit I suppose, but certainly not the only approach. In fact, millions of Christians find it way too confining and extremely difficult to utilize in a meaningful way. It feels almost robotic and certainly way too formal to many believers. Therefore, they opt for a "low church" approach.
Just how "low" will Pope Francis go? Will he liberate Catholic priests who might prefer to go without the robes and the bells and whistles of the high church traditions? Will he point the people more toward Jesus than toward particular traditions that should really be left up to the individual conscience, rather than dictated to believers by "church law" and liturgical etiquette? Time will tell. If his initial decisions are any indication, the liturgical traditionalists better buckle up for the long haul. Francis may be getting ready to shake things up a bit.
This is a perfect opportunity for the Catholic church to discuss the meaning of worship for God's people. Is only one approach acceptable, or is there plenty of flexibility to incorporate various forms of informal praise and worship? Our world is changing. While God's Word never changes, the worship practices of His followers tend to change somewhat over the centuries as the gifts of God's people produce a variety of songs to the Lord. The wearing of robes in the New Testament was a priority for the Pharisees, but Jesus pointed to the heart rather than to the outer trappings of worship.
As the New Testament ushered in a new era, true worship became worshipping God "in spirit and in truth." (John 4:24) That can happen in a low church service, or in a high church service. But should Christians in any group be made to feel as though only one approach is approved by God? "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) That freedom is often joyfully expressed through Spirit-filled variety, and not merely through endless repetition and rigidity. Both high church proponents and low church proponents need to beware of the dangers of mindless repetition in our worship of God.
Pope Francis seems quite free. The AP article said he is "the church's chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants" as it relates to "liturgical law." Hmm. Sounds reminiscent of the New Testament. Francis, like all Christians, is free to lean toward high church or low church, or somewhere in the middle. This freedom to worship the Lord from the heart is vastly superior to a slavish dependence upon the "liturgical law" of an organization.
Just how free is Pope Francis, and how far will Catholics feel they can push the envelope in areas where Scripture leaves it up to the individual Christian and congregation? Regardless of the organization, God's Word always trumps "church law." Man's rules and traditions should never be placed on par with Scripture. That is where religious men make a deadly error.
Jesus did not come as a new lawgiver. He came to set us free. He came to save us. A large part of our response to His love is found in our heartfelt worship and praise. That doesn't always fit neatly into a highly structured liturgical service. Sometimes it does, at least for some people. But many times it doesn't, at least for many Christians in the world.
Jesus says you are free to worship Him in sincerity and truth. That goes for the Pope, and for every Christian who by virtue of His spiritual position is just as close to Jesus as any born again church official. Aren't you glad Jesus didn't hang out with church officials who had big titles? Come to think of it, Jesus never encouraged his disciples to develop pomp and circumstance either. In that same spirit, it looks like Pope Francis is aware of some of the dangers associated with pomp and circumstance.
The truth is that all Christians and all Christian congregations are just as free as Pope Francis to determine which traditions to follow, and which ones to leave behind in the dust. As long as our practices do not go against Scripture, we are free to follow our conscience as we rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us. There are plenty of areas, including worship, where Christians differ from one another in the way they live out the life of discipleship. What's wrong with that?
The religious leaders of His day were often upset at Jesus for bucking tradition. They didn't get it. They didn't see that the Messiah and our love for Him is always more important than man's traditions and other secondary matters of the Christian life. Man, by nature, tends to get hung up on the wrong things. It's not about what is "outside the dish," but what is inside. (see Matthew 23:25-27) Do you honestly think God cares today whether or not religious leaders wear robes or swing incense? We should have moved beyond that mindset 2000 years ago when Jesus addressed such things.
"Did you hear the one about the Pope who started leading worship without wearing a robe?" If that "joke" ever becomes a reality, I guess the liturgy police won't be laughing. By the way, the Catholic church isn't the only religious organization with liturgical traditionalists. It's a stronghold in a number of religious groups.
Wouldn't it be ironic if the Pope were to inspire some liturgy-driven Protestants to focus more passionately on the poor than on the liturgy? I guess the world truly is changing. Hang on. When Jesus returns, many liturgical traditions will get tossed right out the stained glass window. Do you want to see Christians engaged from the heart in authentic worship? Just wait, and watch. Worship "in spirit and in truth" is coming to a town near you. I suspect Pope Francis is looking forward to that day as well.
In the meantime, you are free if you are a believer in Jesus. Follow the Scriptures. Where they are silent on a matter, be very careful how strongly you push for this or that tradition. That's how the Pharisees made such a mess for themselves, and for those who followed their example. Pope Francis doesn't want to be like one of them.